Half way through Winter’s Bone I found myself thinking, “So, this is what the Western has become?” The best Westerns are about finding or sustaining a moral path though a lawless frontier and the frontier in Winter’s Bone is the hidden world of the rural poor and the path is a strange and terrifying one.
In the rough and remote Ozark Mountains, teenage Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is single-handedly bringing up her two young siblings while caring for her emotionally damaged mother. One cold morning the Sheriff turns up with the news that her father, Jessup, used their house as his bail bond and unless Ree can find him and persuade him to turn up for Court, the family will lose everything.
Jessup is (or maybe was) what we would call a ‘P’ dealer — the only economy in the area showing any kind of growth. But the company he was keeping were the meanest of the mean and to find her father Ree must venture into dangerous territory.
In 1997 two young hotshots stunned the film world by winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for their first produced script. Since then, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have suffered cruel mutterings ever since: that they couldn’t possibly have written such a good film by themselves and that if they did why haven’t they written anything else? Added to the indignity is the constant rumour that Hollywood script guru William Goldman netted a million dollars for three weeks work punching up Good Will Hunting on condition that he would forever deny it (which he denies).
In the 11 years since that win the career trajectories of Affleck and Damon have been public. Starring roles in blockbuster successes, high-profile romantic liaisons and (in the case of Affleck) a little bit of rehab. But there has been precious little original creative output from either party until the release of Gone Baby Gone, Affleck’s directorial debut (also co-written), which reached Wellington this week.
Directing is a real test of a filmmaker’s chops. Unlike a fudged writing credit you can’t fake being on a set (although a great crew, DP and editor can often cover a multitude of sins) but I’m thrilled to report that Affleck has produced a work of genuine lasting quality.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Gone Baby Gone is set in the same Boston mean streets that Will (from Good Will Hunting) grew up in. If you saw Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (also from a Lehane story) or Scorsese’s The Departed you’ll be familiar with the geographical territory, but Affleck’s eye is even more highly tuned to the neighborhood than those masters.
Four year old Amanda has been snatched from her home while her young single mother (sensational Amy Ryan) was getting stoned at a bar. The Police led by Morgan Freeman (himself suffering the loss of a child) are struggling to get traction from a community suspicious of uniforms. Young private investigator Patrick (Casey Affleck) and his partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) are enlisted by the family to try and tease out some clues that would be unavailable to law enforcement.
And that’s when it gets really interesting – because Affleck chooses to downplay the thriller (or procedural) aspects of the piece in favour of character study and the unveiling of a terrible moral dilemma. And its a dilemma that remains perfectly balanced right to the end where, like Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, our honourable private eye is virtually alone, forced to live with the unending pain of doing the right thing.
The production line of asian-horror-remakes is still chugging along. The Eye (remake of a Hong Kong thriller) will be reviewed next week while Shutter (based on a Thai film called Shutter) has already been around a week or so. I find these things to be dreadfully tiresome for the most part, formulaic and predictable. In Shutter a newlywed American couple in Japan (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor) find strange shadows appearing in their holiday snaps. It turns out there’s a spirit following them around, sneaking into their frames, spoiling their compositions. Well, their photography is about to be the least of their worries. Shutter is laughable for the first two-thirds but rescued by a well-manufactured dénouement so I ended up not hating it totally.
Owen Wilson has been in the news more for his mental health issues than his acting in recent months but it is worthwhile to be reminded that he remains one of the most watch-able actors of modern times and the pleasant enough comedy Drillbit Taylor comes to life whenever he is on the screen. He plays the eponymous Taylor, a military deserter and bum who takes on the job of protecting three nerdy kids from high school bullies. The kids are pretty funny too — like the kids from Superbad, only a few years younger.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 2 April, 2008.
Notes on screening conditions: This is the first all-Readings edition of the weekly review since it commenced back in October 2006.
There’s something creepy yet disarmingly human about Peter O’Toole’s ageing lothario in Venus; a once beautiful actor still working sporadically, his cadaverous features best-suited to the literal portrayal of corpses, clinging to the promise of beauty and pleasure despite the ultimate futility of the chase.
Newcomer Jodie Whittaker (in a star-making performance) becomes the object of his affection, tutelage and reverence when she arrives in London to nurse his best friend (Leslie Phillips). While Phillips is appalled at the girl’s inability to cook anything other than pot noodle while drinking his best scotch, Maurice is intoxicated by her spirit and beauty and decides to take her under his wing.
While O’Toole’s performance has won all the plaudits (and the Oscar nomination), it is the portrait of reckless, innocent and impetuous youth that has stayed with me — the best portrayal of what it means to be young I have seen in a long time. Whittaker’s Jessie has all the confidence and bravado one gets launching in to the world with the training wheels off but not enough self-knowledge to protect her from the dangers within it.